December 05, 2011

Flash-mob opera: The devil is in the attitude

So these four opera singers walk into a food court... It worked beautifully in Philadelphia’s Reading Market last winter, as I blogged at the time. But a week’s worth of Chicago Opera Theater singers doing the same thing in Chicago suggests that it’s not easy to make this kind of public arts-grenade infectious rather than merely interesting.

The setting and the surprise are the same: a busy downtown food market at lunchtime, with diners eating, reading, and talking. Some music begins—in this case a pianist at an electronic keyboard—and one of the people waiting on line for coffee turns around and begins to sing an operatic chestnut in a big, gorgeous voice.

Video and photos below: Marcus Leshock/WGNTV)

The folks at Chicago Opera Theater are clearly taking a page from their colleagues at the Opera Company of Philadelphia, who have done several of these stealth interventions under the Knight Foundation’s wonderful “Random Acts of Culture” program.

But compare the videos (Chicago and Philadelphia) and photos and you can sense a subtle but decisive difference. The bystanders—bysitters?—in Chicago don’t really get into it. They seem intrigued but not enlivened. Their faces have a slightly closed-off look, the look you get when someone's trying to sell you something. For the most part, they go on with what they were doing.

Whereas the faces in Philadelphia are smiling, energized, made happier. They pull out their smartphones to shoot video. Strangers talk and gesture to each other. A crowd gathers.

What’s the difference? Not artistic quality, at least in the usual sense. It’s something in the faces and body language of the performers. The OCP singers are clearly having fun, relishing the stunt and the connections it lets them make with people. This is classical music as a social practice.

The COT singers pull the same stunt gamely, but gamely isn’t the same thing as wholeheartedly or comfortably. Their smiles seem a little more stagey. Their eyes aren’t twinkling with the giddiness of the enterprise, the energy that turns a performance into a party. They're putting themselves out there, but they're not making a scene.

Predictably, they get back what they give. ...

Which brings us to that old but increasingly urgent question of whether classical singers and musicians should think of themselves as just that, musicians—highly trained, highly professional makers of music—or as performers or even, god forbid, entertainers. Most are proudly in the former camp, although a few (think of Yo Yo Ma or, in different way, Hilary Hahn) know it’s not an either-or.

That’s probably why so many classical concerts seem to be missing the same things I’m sensing a lack of in the COT’s pop-up performances: a feeling that the music is being made for somebody and by somebody, that the performers are having fun and confident that it will be contagious.

So in a sense, these Chicago pop-up performances—in celebration of National Opera Week, by the way—may be a more accurate promise to audiences who don’t attend opera than the OCP “random acts” are. In both cases, the outreach is meant to bust up the stereotypes surrounding the art form and lower the intimidation factor. But if we’re not careful, we can give audiences more insight than we intended into how classical music really feels. 

By the way, I’m not suggesting that COT is anything less than a creative and talented company. Their productions are usually terrific and the organization is no stranger to innovative engagement. (Full disclosure: my firm works with the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, where COT is a resident organization.) Nor do I know whether OCP’s regular performances convey the same performative energy that they brought to Reading Market or Macy’s.

Have you seen a flash performance lately? What worked for you, or didn’t? And what do you think of the recent round of pop-up opera in Chicago?

1 Comment »
Hans-Werner — February 19, 2012

You 've said it all. An opera or musical performance wherever, is intentionally something that should light a fire and reach people in their heart. I believe it's commoin sense that if the actor is not burnig he won't be able to light others... They need to put as much efforts into "how to perform" as they do in learning to be able to sing the songs. It's a totally different "stage" and people are caught by surprise while doing other things. So they need a brighter smile showing that they enjoy doing it (as you mentioned). Not so it looks as if they have been told or have been forced to do this "job".

Still I'm convinced this is a wonderfull way to make our daily life more colorful. And more singers should think about finding friends and planning something like this.

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